Our Lady and Saviour Dolly Parton really is here to save 2020, in more ways than one. With the recent news that Parton had been a major donor to the Covid-19 vaccine research team, it really seems that if we have to place our trust in white septuagenarians, we can certainly find better options than those with political power. Netflix have been all-in on Dolly for sometime now, with documentary Here I Am and TV show Heartstrings. Now, the Christmas treat we all sorely need is here – a musical extravaganza, with Christine Baranski as the Scrooge-like central character who maybe…perhaps…has her heart melted by the fine folk of a small town and the guidance of a certain Guardian Angel with enormous…hair. Directed and choreographed by Broadway-and-television legend Debbie Allen and with 14 original songs by Dolly herself, it’s really hard to see how this could possibly go wrong.
And it’s with great pleasure that I can tell you: it’s every bit as wonderful and magical as you’re probably imagining.
Christine Baranski has had some iconic roles in the last 10-15 years, chiefly as Diane Lockhart in The Good Wife and The Good Fight. She’s also known for her musical roles in Into the Woods and Chicago. While watching Christmas on the Square, one of the main thoughts that span around my head like ten lords a-leaping was “this is what other people must feel like when watching those Mamma Mia films” (which also feature the booked-and-busy Baranski). I am happy to report that from the first moment she’s on-screen here, she is in fine scenery-chewing pantomime villain form and doesn’t let up for a moment. It is immensely satisfying that this film stars two women with a combined age of 142 (and over 200 if you add Jenifer Lewis), demonstrating that actresses don’t have to be carted off to the retirement home when they hit 40.
Baranski plays Regina, the daughter of the old ‘owner’ of the town and now he’s passed on, she wants to sell the town to the developers of a giant mall. The town is populated by a variety of wholesome types – there’s Regina’s old flame Carl (Treat Williams), her best friend Margeline (Jenifer Lewis), the pastor Christian (Josh Segarra) and his wife Jenna (Mary Lane Haskell), pub landlord Mack (Matthew Johnson) and his daughter Violet (Selah Kimbro Jones). All of these people are served with their marching orders from their various small businesses by Regina right at Christmas time – the evil witch. She does have an assistant, Felicity (Jeanine Mason) who does her best to mitigate Regina’s nefarious plans.
Regina starts seeing a Guardian Angel (Dolly!) and believes she might have a brain tumour. Regina discovers more about her old love Carl and her father and well….I’m sure you can guess where the plot is going. The two highlights of the cast (other than Baranski and Parton, obviously) are Matthew Johnson – whose acting and singing are so good, he almost derails the entire experience and little star Kelah Simbro Jones. Jones shares a bar scene with Baranski – Regina nursing a whiskey and Violet with a chocolate milk, while they have a heart-to-heart – and this is one of the best scenes. Segarra is a bit of a bum-note as the Pastor, but him and his wife make a cute couple.
As far as the songs go, by far my favourite was Wicked Witch of the Middle – a big number involving the whole town while they’re having a meeting at the church – which is reminiscent of Monorail from The Simpsons. Regina – Queen of Mean is another good one that Jenifer Lewis sings while doing Regina’s hair and she later gets a gospel number. While I’m generally not a fan of the slower, mushier songs, Light Your Lamp is lovely and Dolly sings it while floating on a cloud in Regina’s house, so I don’t know what more you could want.
The only small quibble is that it does get quite religious at times, with all the focus on angels etc. But over all, this a delightful experience from top to bottom. Baranski fully sinks her teeth into her villainous role, knowing exactly what she needs to do to make the whole thing work. If you usually go to see a musical or a pantomime over Christmas time, this will go some way to filling that hole in your life. It’s as sweet as a candy cane and as warm as chestnuts roasting on an open fire – a rhinestone-covered Christmas gift for us all.
Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square will be available on Netflix from November 22 2020.